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Rep. Colleen Hanabusa Headshot

Hawaii Has Shown That Gun Control Works

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The dark roll of gun violence in America is sadly familiar, and growing. Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook. Each time, our nation stands in witness to the shock, the tears, and the makeshift memorials. Recently, Cornell Square Park and the Washington Navy Yard joined that list.

Each of these events has underscored the urgent need for Congress to advance critical gun violence prevention efforts at the federal level. We cannot turn away again. Our focus must remain squarely on the need to protect our communities while also respecting the rights of gun owners. Our experience in Hawaii has shown that we can place common sense limits on gun sales, demonstrate our respect for gun owners, and, most importantly, help ensure the safety of our residents.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks Hawaii's gun laws as the fifth strongest in the nation. At the same time, we have the lowest rate of gun deaths in the country. The implication is clear: strong gun laws save lives.

Hawaii's gun laws are strict, but hardly draconian. All handgun transfers, whether from a dealer or a private seller, require a permit, and sellers must report transfers to the issuing authority. The buyer of a rifle or shotgun can obtain a permit that covers all purchases for one year, although all transfers must still be reported. Permits call for background checks and a mandatory 14-day waiting period. Permit applicants also agree to allow the issuing authorities access to any records that have a bearing on the applicant's mental health; doctors are given immunity from civil liability for providing that information in connection with a permit application.

Background checks, waiting periods, reports of transfers, and access to mental health records have not stopped the legal sale of firearms to legitimate buyers. Gun sales in Hawaii have increased, while our confidence that they are being handled appropriately has not wavered.

Nor have Hawaii's gun control laws led to widespread community resistance. I was the chair of the Hawaii State Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004 when the Hawaii legislature considered a bill that placed stricter limits on those who were the subject of a restraining order; it passed the committee unanimously and faced only three no votes in the Senate chamber. Similarly, in 2006 when my committee considered an amendment to our gun laws to require that all gun permit applicants be checked through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System it passed both the committee and the full Senate unanimously.

I believe this indicates that Hawaii residents see the value of care in controlling who has access to firearms, and are willing to accept common sense limits on gun ownership. I don't think our state is unique in sharing those values.

At the same time, Hawaii balances its gun control laws with respect for the rights and principles of gun owners. In 2010, while I was serving as president of the Hawaii Senate, we considered and passed a bill that specifically prohibited the use of civil defense, emergency, or disaster relief powers during a civil defense emergency or time of national emergency to confiscate firearms or ammunition from a person who has a lawful permit and is lawfully using the firearm or ammunition, or to suspend, revoke, or limit any lawful firearm permit or license. During times of emergencies, civil crisis, or natural disasters it is important for persons to remain free to exercise their constitutional rights in a lawful and appropriate manner, and I believe it is important that we provide individuals with specific reassurance that we value those rights.

I recently sent a letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, encouraging them to bring H.R. 1565, the King-Thompson Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act of 2013 to the floor for a vote. That bill is the House companion to the bipartisan agreement on background checks struck in the Senate by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA). It expands the existing background check system and closes a number of gun sale loopholes by requiring comprehensive and enforceable background checks on all commercial gun sales, including those at gun shows, over the internet, or through classified ads, with reasonable family and friend exceptions. Under this legislation, background checks on potential gun buyers would be conducted through a federally licensed firearms dealer, who would then retain the sales records the same way they currently do, and have done for the last 40 years.

At the same time H.R. 1565 also reinforces and protects the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners by providing "reasonable" exceptions to the background check requirement for firearm transfers between family, friends and hunting associates. The bill explicitly bans the federal government from creating a registry, and makes the misuse of firearm records a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

I believe that the King-Thompson proposal represents at the federal level the kind of fair, commonsense and effective legislation that has helped Hawaii achieve and preserve our low level of gun-related violence. It deserves bipartisan support, and our citizens deserve the kind of safety it could offer.

I am certain that there are extremists on both sides of the gun control debate in Hawaii, as in the rest of the nation. However, it has been our willingness and ability to develop mutually respectful and effective gun control laws that have kept our community safe. Our experience has shown that common sense solutions save lives. I hope our nation will follow our example.